Samsung will not exhibit at IFA 2020, opts for digital event instead

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A major company just announced that it will not be taking part in an in-person trade show, instead opting to go online only. After early reports from South Korean press, Samsung has just confirmed with TechCrunch that it will not be taking part in Europe’s largest consumer tech trade show. 

“We have taken the exciting decision to share our latest news and announcements at our own digital event in early September,” the company tells TechCrunch. “While Samsung will not be participating in IFA 2020, we look forward to our continued partnership with IFA in the future.”

The decision comes as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge. Earlier today, the European Union announced that it will be opening travel from 15 countries starting tomorrow, while continuing to ban travelers from the United States, Brazil and Russia, where COVID-19 remains an on-going concern.

I’ve been in touch with individuals involved with the show recently, and it seems clear that everyone is monitoring the situation closely. I’ve also sent a followup in the wake of this Samsung news. Likely it won’t be enough to sink the show by itself, but we’ve seen the domino effect played out several times this years — most notably in the case of fellow European trade show Mobile World Congress, which seemed to die a bit of a slow death over the course of a month of so.

IFA’s organizers announced the planned return of the show back in mid-May, with a number of precautions. “While the organizers hope that the overall public health situation will improve between now and September,” the org wrote at the time, “they have decided to err on the side of caution and meet the strictest safety standards possible.” Amid the precautions are limiting attendance to 1,000 people a day, along with a strict invite-only press release.

The way things are going on the COVID-19 front, however, it seems likely that many attendees will simply opt to monitor the show from afar.

South Korean court denies prosecutors’ arrest warrant request for Samsung heir Jay Lee

A South Korean court denied an arrest warrant request for Samsung Group heir apparent Jay Y. Lee, saying that although prosecutors’ secured “a considerable amount of evidence,” it was still not enough to detain Lee. Prosecutors filed for the warrant last week, accusing Lee of accounting fraud and stock manipulation.

Prosecutors allege that the value of electronics materials provider Cheil Industries was artificially inflated before its 2015 merger with Samsung C&T, Samsung’s de facto holding company, to create a more favorable rate for Lee, who was then the largest shareholder in Cheil.

Lee served nearly a year in jail between 2017 and 2018 after he was charged with bribing former President Park Geun-hye to secure support for the merger. The scandal eventually led to Park’s impeachment in 2017 and a 25-year prison term for bribery, abuse of power and embezzlement.

According to Nikkei Asian Review, Seoul Central District Court said in a statement, “It appears that prosecutors have secured a considerable amount of evidence through their investigation, but they fell short of explaining the validity to detain Lee.”

Prosecutors said the investigation would continue and they may apply again for an arrest warrant, or bring Lee to trial without an arrest. Lee’s attorneys said they want the case to be reviewed by an outside panel to decide if an indictment is justified.

TechCrunch has contacted Samsung for comment.

Prosecutors seek arrest warrant against Samsung heir Jay Lee

South Korean prosecutors said on Thursday that they have filed an arrest warrant for Samsung Group’s anointed heir Jay Y. Lee and two other former company executives as part of a sprawling investigation into an alleged accounting fraud and a controversial merger that shook the country.

In May, Lee appeared before prosecutors to be questioned over the merger of two Samsung units. Prosecutors suspected that the value of Cheil Industries, an electronics materials provider, was intentionally inflated before its 2015 merger with Samsung C&T, Samsung Group’s de facto holdings company, to achieve a favorable rate for the heir, who was at the time the biggest shareholder in Cheil Industries.

Critics argued that the merger made Lee the largest shareholder of Samsung’s de-facto holding company and smoothed the way for his succession from his hailing father.

Lee has previously denied charges. Samsung cannot be immediately reached for comment.

Global smartphone sales plummeted 20% in Q1, thanks to COVID-19

More dismal numbers confirm what we already knew: Q1 2020 was real rough for an already struggling smartphone category. Gartner’s latest report puts the global market at a 20.2% slide versus the same time last year, thanks in large part to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every single one of the global top-five manufactures saw large declines for the quarter, save for Xiaomi, which saw a slight uptick of 1.4%. The Chinese handset maker got a surprise bump, courtesy of international sales. Samsung and Huawei and Oppo all saw double-digit drop-offs at 22.7%, 27.3% and 19.1%, while Apple declined 8.2%. Other companies combined for a sizable 24.2% loss for Q1.

The reasons are ones we’ve gone over several times before, nearly all pertaining to the global pandemic. Chief among them are global stay at home orders and general economic uncertainly. Issues with the global supply chain have no doubt been a factor, as well, as Asia was the first to get hit with the virus.

All of this comes in addition to an already plateauing/declining smartphone market. Analysts had expected that the arrival of 5G would help stem the tide a bit — but, well, some stuff happened in there. Notably, Apple’s slide wasn’t as bad as it might have been thanks to a strong start to the year.

“If COVID-19 did not happen, the vendor would have likely seen its iPhone sales reached record level in the quarter. Supply chain disruptions and declining consumer spending put a halt to this positive trend in February,” Gartner’s Annette Zimmermann said in a release. “Apple’s ability to serve clients via its online stores and its production returning to near normal levels at the end of March helped recover some of the early positive momentum.”

Overall, I suspect that recovery won’t be instantaneous for the market. The future of COVID-19 still feels largely uncertain as countries have begun the process of reopening, and a pricey investment still may not be in the cards for many who are struggling to make ends meet. 

Enjoy some 4K TV with your nature on Samsung’s new outdoor sets

Like most of us, you’ve probably been stuck inside for months now. Sitting around, pacing your home, watching a lot of bad television. Would anything possibly be better than finally getting some time outdoors to commune with nature and catch a little ultra high-def television?

Up to now, outdoor sets have largely been the realm of specialty companies with names like SunBriteTV. Now Samsung’s getting in on the decidedly niche category, with the Terrace line. The sets also sport a fairly niche price tag, starting at $3,499 for the 55-inch model and going up to $6,499 for the 75-inch.

The lofty price tag gets you IP55 weather proofing, against the inevitable water and dust. The 2160p screen is an extremely bright 2000 nits — designed to be bright enough to watch in the sunlight. It’s got all of the necessary ports, but Samsung’s largely focused on wireless connectivity, so users (well, installers) only have to plug it into a power source. There’s also a separate Terrace sound bar that also carries the IP55 rating. That’s going to run you an additional $1,200 to complete the set up.

Maybe it’s just me, being grumpy and slightly unhinged from being stuck inside a New York apartment for months on end, but the last thing I want to do upon leaving the apartment is watch TV. Granted, this pandemic is starting to get to me. If you’ve got the inclination, outdoor space and several grand to spend, Samsung’s got you.

Top members of Google’s Pixel team have left the company

Key Pixel team members Marc Levoy and Mario Queiroz are out at Google. The departures, first reported by The Information, have been confirmed on the pages of the former Distinguished Engineer and Pixel General Manager, respectively.

Both members were key players on Google’s smartphone hardware team before exiting earlier this year. Levoy was a key member of the Pixel imaging team, with an expertise in computational photography that helped make the smartphone’s camera among the best in class. Queiroz was the number two on the Pixel team.

The exits come as the software giant has struggled to distinguish itself in a crowded smartphone field. The products have been generally well-received (with the exception of the Pixel 4’s dismal battery life), but the Android-maker has thus far been unable to rob much market share from the likes of Samsung and Huawei.

The Information report sheds some additional light on disquiet among the Pixel leadership. Hardware head Rick Osterloh reportedly voiced some harsh criticism during an all-hands late last year. It certainly seems possible the company saw fit to shake things up a bit, though Google declined TechCrunch’s request for comment.

Breaking into the smartphone market has been a white whale for the company for some time. Google has explored the space through its Nexus partnerships, along with its short-lived Motorola Mobility acquisition (2012-2014). The Pixel is possibly the most successful of these projects, but Google’s struggles have coincided with an overall flattening of the market.

The company did find some success with last year’s budget Pixel 3A. The followup Pixel 4A was rumored for a late May launch, though the device has reportedly been delayed.

Xiaomi, Samsung and others begin to resume smartphone production in India

Xiaomi, Vivo, Samsung, Oppo and other smartphone companies have received approval from some state governments in India to partially resume manufacturing and assembling of devices amid the ongoing lockdown in the world’s second largest handset market that completely shut operations at these plants in late March.

The companies said that they have secured permission to kick start their manufacturing operations in the country, though several restrictions such as operating with limited workforce are still in place. (The federal government allowed the resumption of smartphone production earlier this month, but state governments have the final say on whether the local conditions are safe enough to enforce the relaxation.)

New Delhi’s decision comes days after it extended the lockdown by two weeks earlier this month but eased some restrictions to revive economic activity that’s been stalled since the stringent stay-at-home orders were imposed across the nation in late March.

Earlier this week, the government permitted e-commerce firms and ride-hailing services to resume services in green and orange zones, districts that have seen less severe outbreak of the coronavirus, across the country. Green and orange zones account for 82% of India’s 733 districts.

Xiaomi, which launched a range of gadgets in India today including its Snapdragon 865-powered Mi 10 smartphone, said earlier this month that it only had inventory to meet demand for up to three weeks.

Manu Kumar Jain, a VP at Xiaomi who oversees the Chinese firm’s business in India, said today that the company, which has been the top smartphone vendor in the country for more than two years, would restart operations in its contract partner Foxconn’s facility in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

A person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that Wistron, a contract partner of Apple, has started limited operations for the iPhone-maker in Bangalore.

Vivo, the second largest smartphone vendor in India, said the company will resume production at 30% of their capacity. “We shall begin production with around 3,000 employees,” a Vivo spokesperson said.

Like Vivo, Oppo will also resume production at its Greater Noida facility with around 3,000 employees who would work in rotation, it said. Samsung, which opened the world’s biggest smartphone factory in India in 2018, said it will restart production in that factory.

“On Thursday, the factory started limited operations, which will be scaled up over a period of time. Employee safety and well-being remaining our absolute priority, we have ensured that all hygiene and social distancing measures are maintained at the premises, as per government guidelines,” said a Samsung spokesperson.

The coronavirus outbreak has severely disrupted several businesses. India did not see any handset sale last month, according to research firm Counterpoint. Counterpoint estimated that the smartphone shipments in India will decline by 10% this year, compared to a 8.9% growth in 2019 and 10% growth in 2018.

Every top smartphone maker in India has either established its own manufacturing plant or partnered with contract vendors to produce units locally in recent years to avail the tax benefits that New Delhi offers.

Smartwatch shipments grew during the first quarter of 2020, with Apple Watch still in first place

Despite the worldwide impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, global smartwatch shipments continued to grow during the first three months of the year, driven by online sales, says a new report by research firm Strategy Analytics.

Shipments grew 20% annually to reach 13.7 million units in the first quarter of 2020, up from 11.4 million units in the previous quarter. Apple Watch stayed in the top position, with 55% global market share, followed in second place by Samsung. Garmin rose to third place.

“Smartwatches are selling well through online retail channels, while many consumers have been using smartwatches to monitor their health and fitness during virus lockdown,” wrote Strategy Analytics senior analyst Steven Waltzer.

In the first quarter of 2020, 7.6 million Apple Watches shipped, a 23% increase from the 6.2 million shipped during the same period one year ago. Apple Watch’s market share grew from 54% to 55%.

Samsung shipped 1.9 million smartwatches, compared to 1.7 million last year, while its market share went down from 15% to 14%. Waltzer writes that Samsung’s smartwatch growth was slowed by the coronavirus lockdown in South Korea and new competition from rivals like Garmin .

Garmin took the number three position for the first time in two years, shipping 1.1 million smartwatches in the first quarter, a 38% increase from 800,000 a year ago. This grew Garmin’s share of the global smartwatch market from 7% to 8%, thanks to new models like the Venu with OLED color touchscreen.

Strategy Analytics expects global smartwatch shipments to slow in the second quarter of 2020 because of the pandemic, but recover during the second half of the year, as stores reopen and some consumers turn to smartwatches to help them monitor their health.

“Smartwatches continue to have excellent long-term prospects, as younger and older people will become more health-conscious in a post-virus world,” wrote analyst Woody Oh. “Smartwatches can monitor vital health signs, such as oxygen levels, and consumers may find comfort in having a virtual health assistant strapped to their wrist.”

Xiaomi launches Mi Commerce in India to boost sales amid lockdown

Xiaomi today launched a new e-commerce service in India that allows people in the nation to easily browse and order its handsets and other products from nearby physical retail stores as the Chinese giant rushes to kickstart its sales in its biggest overseas market.

Dubbed Mi Commerce, the service allows people to locate nearby stores that are either run by Xiaomi or those that have tie-ups with the company and browse smartphones, TVs, electric lamps, and a range of other products.

Users can express their “interest” to purchase the selected item through the app that would prompt the retail store to place a confirmation call. The retail store would deliver the item and then process the payment, Xiaomi said. A spokesperson told TechCrunch that Mi Commerce is available only in India currently.

Xiaomi has also launched a WhatsApp Business account that operates on a similar flow. Users can send a message to +91 8861826286 to initiate the conversation with retail stores through Facebook-owned service.

The shift to what is often described in the industry as an online to offline model comes as Xiaomi, like other smartphone vendors, looks to make up its lost sales in recent weeks. India ordered a nationwide lockdown in late March that shut retail shops, and restricted e-commerce firms to only service grocery orders.

According to Hong Kong-headquartered research firm Counterpoint, no smartphone units were sold in India, the world’s second largest smartphone market, in April.

In a call with reporters, Xiaomi executives said they were hopeful that the Indian market would attain at least 80% of its momentum by the end of the year. Counterpoint slashed its smartphone projections for India last month, saying it now expects the market to shrink by 10% this year. Indian smartphone market has consistently grown year-by-year in the last decade.

Mi Commerce would additionally also help potential customers maintain social distance and avoid errands to stores that would otherwise expose them to novel coronavirus.

Xiaomi said it was working with the government for an update on the resumption of smartphone manufacturing plants that are also shut since the lockdown was ordered in March. The company executives said they currently have inventory to meet demand for three to four months.

The Chinese giant is also providing working capital to its retail store partners, it said.

Samsung, which lost the tentpole position in India’s smartphone market to Xiaomi in 2018 and recently the second spot to Vivo, did not respond to TechCrunch’s request for comment on any similar efforts it has made — or not made — in India.

On Monday, e-commerce firms including Amazon and Walmart in India resumed their service for people in more than 80% zip codes in the country. A lockdown would remain in place for another two weeks in India, but New Delhi has eased some restrictions.

India’s Glance tops 100 million daily active users in 21 months

Glance, which serves media content, news, and casual games on the lock screen of Android -powered smartphones, has amassed 100 million daily active users, it said today.

The subsidiary of ad-firm InMobi Group reached the milestone in 21 months in what appears to be the shortest duration for any popular internet service to gain their first 100 million daily active users, said Naveen Tewari, founder and chief executive of InMobi Group, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Glance uses AI to offer personalized experience to its users. The service replaces the otherwise empty lock screen with locally relevant news, stories, and casual games. Late last year, InMobi acquired Roposo, a Gurgaon-headquartered startup, that has enabled it to introduce short-form videos on the platform.

“Introducing short-form videos and games on Glance has helped us increase the engagement level. About 25% of our users actively play games on Glance,” said Tewari. The firm is now working to make these short-form videos available in many local languages. (You can also try the service on your mobile web browser.)

In addition to offering a standalone app on Google Play Store, Glance ships pre-installed on several smartphone models. InMobi Group maintains tie-ups with nearly every top Android smartphone vendor including Xiaomi, the top player in India, and Samsung.

But users can easily disable the service, said Tewari, adding that the 100 million users the firm is reporting today are those who consciously engage with content on Glance. Users spend about 25 minutes consuming content on Glance each day, he said.

Sitting on the lock screen, perhaps the most coveted real estate on a smartphone to reach a user, has allowed Glance to deliver any information to a very large number of users in a short time. Tewari said more than 50 million users reacted to Glance informing them about India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech last month surrounding the lockdown in the country, for instance.

“We are not just a short-form video platform. We are not just a gaming platform nor one that serves just news. Given where we sit, we cater to nearly everything that is out there across the world. So everyone has something to consume,” he said.

The service is currently available in India, its biggest market with more than 80 million users, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Tewari said the firm plans to roll out Glance across the globe in the next two years.

Glance, which raised $45 million last year, is currently not monetizing its users. Tewari said he has experimented with a few ideas, but won’t make any push on this front for another one to two quarters.